Stumped for cash
Cricket is India’s greatest passion. A booming economy means businessmen and politicians are getting involved in the game, and investing vast sums of cash into its infrastructure. But if money is encouraging more people to dream of glory, then corruption and commercialism could also be killing it from within.
On a sun-kissed stretch of Bangalore parkland, some kids are playing cricket. Their wickets are discarded Pepsi crates, their bat and ball museum pieces. Later, they tell me, they’ll head back to their homes in Gandhi Bazaar, a warren of crumbling townhouses and shacks on the outskirts of town. Some of their parents drive tiny auto-rickshaws for a living, or churn bamboo shoots into juice or chip wood. The boys’ futures will hang on India’s infinite social boundaries, including its controversial caste system. Some might get an education, find a profession and make a decent life. Others will be pulled out of school to help with the family business, adding to the 400 million Indians already living below the poverty line.
Cricket doesn’t care what caste the boys are from. It doesn’t mind if they went to school, or which gods they worship. The huge sums of cash now being pumped into the game means that boys like these can now dream of making millions and becoming icons like the national side’s stars. Money has arguably turned playing cricket into India’s only true democracy. But with cash comes a darker side, one which could send the game crashing to its knees.
On a balmy Bangalore night I meet Prem Panicker, managing editor of Yahoo! India and lifelong cricket fan, in a swanky thirteenth floor bar called, ingeniously, the 13th Floor Bar. Cheesy American pop songs echo around the room as dozens of affluent young middle class types knock back bottles of Cobra and Kingfisher. They are the products of an exploding economy; a generation of rapacious, successful young businessmen and women who’ve made India their own. Right now there are about 200 million of them, and they have money to spend on many things – including cricket.
Since the advent of satellite TV in India during the Eighties, and the opening up of the Indian economy a decade later, cricket has risen from an amateur game played by the upper classes to a cash-rich carnival played everywhere from the Himalayan foothills to the temples of Tamil Nadu. At the peak of this upheaval is the Indian Premier League (IPL), an impossibly glamorous twenty-over domestic league where cheerleaders jive to every shot and players wear chrome-coloured kits. The world’s top stars are auctioned off, American-style, at the start of the season, and hyperbolically-named sides like the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Delhi Daredevils are owned by Bollywood stars, big businessmen and, more importantly, politicians.
As players line up for their World Cup group match, even the pitch is turned into a patchwork of advertisements.
“Politicians have been involved in cricket for a long time; it’s just now that it’s becoming even more pervasive,” says Prem plaintively, staring out at the city skyline. “Most boards and state associations are now being run by politicians. It basically means that corruption is endemic, and increasingly the politicians are the ones running the system. At a very basic level these people are not competent to run the administration; they have no knowledge or expertise. So even if you forget about everything else, the game itself does not get the kind of attention it deserves.”
Attention at an official level perhaps, but the Indian people’s passion for cricket is unlike anything else on Earth. It has been woven into the fabric of the subcontinent ever since the British East India Company arrived in the Eighteenth century. “The Indian passion for cricket is almost unexplainable,” Indian batsman and former captain, Rahul Dravid, tells me over the phone from Mumbai. “It’s something that goes hand-in-hand with the country; something every single person is connected to or bound by. When the national team is doing well it becomes a topic of conversation everywhere, something everyone has an opinion on.”
A day later I’m crammed into Bangalore’s cavernous M. Chinnaswamy Stadium to see India play Ireland in a World Cup group match. It’s clear the forty-thousand-or-so hemmed in here haven’t lost their passion for the sport: giant Indian tricolours eddy across waves of roaring fans. Each run scored or wicket taken by an Indian player is met with jubilant, shamanic cries of “India! India!” which crash off the creaking old ground’s corrugated roof. Add to this the swelter of the midday Deccan sun, and watching India on home soil is an experience unlike any other.
But if cricket is India’s greatest passion, corruption runs in a close second. Right now the Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, is in the midst of a media storm over leaked documents claiming he bribed MPs to survive a vote of confidence in 2008. So often do tales of political scandal grace the national press, that the country’s most popular yoga teacher is threatening to run for office under an anti-corruption banner. His rivals accuse him of corruption.
India’s culture of “baksheesh”, or bribery, bleeds through every echelon of society. On the day of the sold-out match I manage to bag a ticket from a tout outside the ground. “Come with me, there is great police problem here,” he says, ushering me down a side-street. I look at the stub. The word COMPLEMENTARY is splashed across it in thick black ink. Suspicious, I ask him if it will be valid. “Oh no, this is good seat,” he says. “It was given to me by policeman.”
Today, Prem Panicker argues, the inflated importance of money in cricket means that the game’s administration has been hijacked by a pack of self-interested cronies who care little for the game. Lalit Modi, the architect of the IPL, is himself fighting extradition to India after being accused of siphoning off 468 crore (a multiple of ten million) rupees ($1.05bn) in media and commercial rights to the game. Some of Delhi’s most influential players have raised questions over nepotism and corruption in its state cricket association.
“These are not allegations that the media is making, these are allegations that senior members of the national side actually made,” says Panicker. “The Indian cricketing system has been taken over by far too many interested parties, and their interests are purely self-serving, never the game itself.”
Corruption didn’t always affect cricket. But before satellite television came along, it was a very different game. At the turn of the century, cricket was already hugely popular. But while everyone could watch it, playing the sport was another matter. “Cricket’s fanbase cut across all barriers: class, gender, language,” says Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport. “But to play for India you had to be at least lower middle class, for two reasons: one is that if you were born into a labouring family you’d be sent to work at the age of ten or twelve and you’d never have the chance to pick up a bat. It is only when people are from a slightly better-off background that they can begin to develop the skills. Secondly, cricket was confined to the big cities, where these richer classes lived.”
As radio spread the game beyond Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi in the 1940s to India’s rural heartlands, cricket progressed steadily in popularity, reaching its zenith in 1983 when the national team won its first and only 50-over title. “The World Cup really captured the imagination of the Indian people, when I was growing up,” says Dravid. But his heroes still largely comprised middle class players from the major cities. Some had, and still do, claim that the Indian cricket is chattel to the country’s caste system, a strict social hierarchy based on Hinduism’s Brahminical texts. Like corruption, caste still plays a big role in Indian society, even though it was outlawed in 1980. Violence and prejudice against Dalits, the “untouchable” servant caste, though dwindling, is still a frequent occurrence.
“The Indian cricket team has nothing to do with caste,” insists Guha, almost angrily. Writer and journalist Salil Tripathi agrees, and claims that if there ever was a hint of caste-based selection, it certainly doesn’t exist in today’s money-filled arena. “I think cricket is one of the few areas where merit outdoes almost everything else,” he says. “If you’re good, no-one will really care where you’re from because there is so much money in the game now, and India has learned the habit of winning. If you didn’t select someone because he is from the wrong caste or religion, you’d have a revolt.
“In India the relationship between Hindus and Muslims has never been terrific,” adds Tripathi. “But if you look at the Indian team of the last five or six years, if not the last decade, at least four or five top test cricketers have been Muslims. Right now you could easily have four or five players in the test team who are Muslims, and no-one would bat an eyelid.”
“The glitz and glamour of the lucrative IPL is moving the game away from the common man”
Tripathi rightly points out that class plays just as much, if not more, of a role in England: of the 50-over side that faced India this February, five players were privately educated, from a country where only seven per cent of kids go to private school. Australia has only ever fielded two players from a mixed-race background, Andrew Symonds and Jason Gillespie, in its entire cricketing history.
Today many argue that the IPL’s riches are making those who might not have pursued a career in the game sit up and take notice. “The league’s injection of cash has allowed for investment in infrastructure, it has provided new income for elite sportsmen in a sport that was previously not competitive with other major sports, and it has widened access and participation within the sport,” says Manoj Badale, a London-based entrepreneur and co-owner of the Rajasthan Royals, the IPL’s inaugural champions in 2008.
A couple of decades ago, the national team was almost entirely composed of middle-class city boys. Today many of the country’s biggest stars come from smaller towns and less-privileged backgrounds, such as spinner Harbhajan Singh, batting sensation Virender Sehwag and captain Mahendra Singh (MS) Dhoni. And while they entered the fray before the IPL, players like Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have all taken their national bow after impressive IPL seasons. People who complain that the English Premier League has become too commercial should watch a cricket match in India. In Bangalore, every inch of the playing field is littered with sponsorship. The drinks come onto the pitch via “the dedicated
Pepsi drinks car”. Between each over, various members of the Indian team appear on the big screen, mawkishly flogging everything from lightbulbs to low-fat crisps. Every six hit is sponsored by something; every wicket is taken in association with something else. Come the end of the evening I feel a bit like I’ve been brainwashed, Clockwork Orange-style. Later that evening on my hotel television, MS Dhoni tries to sell me trainers, tellies, phones, chain lube and alcohol (“The Spirit of Leadership!”). It’s exhausting.
And this, in a nutshell, is what Prem thinks could send the national game toppling. The glittering IPL has already turned the heads of India’s young magpies, and there is less enthusiasm than ever for test cricket, the five-day form of the game which most pundits agree is the purest and most technically difficult. And with the game’s governance becoming ever more self-serving, Prem thinks that it’s only a matter of time before the common cricket fans become completely alienated from the game they grew up with.
“Increasingly, when associations are saying that grounds are being expanded or that the facilities are being improved, what is actually happening is that the hospitality areas are being improved at the cost of general seating. At Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium for the World Cup final, it was discovered that there were just 4,000 seats left (of 33,000) after all the freebies had been handed out.
“What happens to the regular Joe who has been supporting cricket for years? His interests don’t seem to matter any more,” adds Prem. “And that has happened ever since the board realised that their real revenues were coming from television, not getting butts on seats. If we were talking about a place like England or Australia, places where cricket has to compete for attention, these things would be tantamount to the sport shooting itself in the foot; people would switch the channel. In India that doesn’t really matter, and that’s what broadcasters and advertisers are counting on: that it won’t make any difference.”
The irony of all this is that the Indian team is actually performing as well as it has in years. It is top of the test pile, and second in the 50-over rankings. In a country of over a billion people, Prem admits he can’t be sure of the long-term effects of the game’s mismanagement on the quality of its players. But from a fans’ perspective there are signs everywhere. “You go to a sports bar and you find young people more interested in wearing Rooney and Ronaldo shirts than Sehwag and Tendulkar shirts. If Manchester United is playing then all the young people are yelling at the barman to change the channel over to the football. And ultimately it’s the young people who dictate how the game will go. It’s a great sign that cricket has gone across the country, but the danger is that metropolitan young people will move away from the game.
There are signs that India’s youth are increasingly turning to football rather than cricket for their sporting fix.
“If you look at the West Indies, I remember Clive Lloyd some years back trying to find out why the national side was in terminal decline,” continues Prem. “One of the things he said was that people were no longer coming to the grounds. Before, when you had a match, the kids would see their heroes and want to be like them. People played a lot. But now they don’t: the kids play basketball, football, and don’t focus the same sort of energies on cricket. Will this happen is India? Not necessarily, because the system is increasingly not based on people coming to the grounds anyway. Secondly, because of the quick money to be made from the IPL, people know they can break into it and live a good life.”
Prem sighs and leans back in his seat. He might be one of cricket’s old guard, but he’s worried about the game he’s loved since he was a young boy. Meanwhile, Jon Bon Jovi splutters out of the speakers behind us, as Bangalore’s hipset stumble and sway across the dance floor. At the far end of the bar, some twenty-somethings are staring at a television. The cricket is on. As another ad splashes across the screen, everyone turns away to face another one. This one’s showing the football.
Cricket could be treading on thinner ice than it thinks.